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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Happy birthday, Shakespeare!

Or possibly baptism day, as we're not sure. We don't have his actual DOB, so we use April 23, his date of baptism. And today is the 450th anniversary.

I have a confession to make: I'm a total Bardoholic. I've been addicted to this guy's writing since I was about eleven. My sister had done Julius Caesar in Year 10 and her copy was still lying around. I was into ancient history at the time, so I opened it, thinking it might be a history book. Imagine my surprise to find out it was a play! And it started with these two guys trying to persuade the mob that they really, really, shouldn't be celebrating Caesar's victory over Pompey, who'd been so nice to them.

This was great stuff! Drama, poetry, characters killing each other, all while speaking in verse! Of course, I just had to read it all and find out how it ended, and then declaim speeches from the most dramatic scenes, aloud in the house. I couldn't wait to study it in Year 10.

My Year 10 English class was a disappointment. The teacher was a terribly nice man, but dull, dull, dull! Most periods we did grammar from the textbook, something I hated because I already knew it. And Julius Caesar? We watched the 1950s movie with Marlon Brando as Marc Antony, John Gielgud as Cassius and James Mason as Brutus, then listened to a recording of the same cast.  That was it. Fortunately, the next year we had a more rewarding experience with Richard III.

 In Year 12, I studied King Lear in Literature. Our Literature teacher was not the best - among other things, he told us not to bother studying Childe Harold for the end of year exam because Vision Of Judgement was much more typical of Byron, just as well I ignored him! - but the play itself took my breath with its beauty and power. We were going to see it performed by the Melbourne Theatre Company before doing it in class and I thought I'd better at least take a look first. My book fell open at the scene  where Lear is cursing Cordelia. I gasped at the utter magic of the speech. 

This, I knew, was going to be my kind of play.

At university, we did a lot of Shakespeare, even performing two plays, Coriolanus and The Winter's Tale. We were excused one essay if we took part in the faculty production. Somewhere at Monash University, if thy haven't thrown it out, there's a recording, hopefully on DVD by now, of me at the age of twenty- one, playing Mopsa the shepherdess and Second lady in waiting to Queen Hermione. In Coriolanus, I was Third Citizen, Second Messenger and Second Officer(Second Officer was done as Second Cleaning Lady, sweeping up the palm leaves after Coriolanus's triumphal procession).  I also got to carry the banner and due in battle.

I love not only his writing but his humanity. His characters are believable. Even his villains are three dimensional. You are allowed to understand why they are that way. I can even forgive the popular plays written because that's what people were watching, such as Titus Andronicus, a play I studied at uni, but can't watch! 

If you think there's no connection between Shakespeare and speculative fiction, think again. The Tempest, as someone once said, is the origin of every SF story about a scientist, mad or otherwise, and his beautiful daughter. It is certainly the inspiration for that classic, Forbidden Planet. When Robert Bloch wrote a Halloween episode for Star Trek, he slipped in the three witches from The Scottish Play, and any Terry Pratchett fan knows what he did with them in the Discworld series. Poul Anderson's A Midsummer Tempest is set in a world in which everything Shakespeare wrote was true; he's called The Great Historian.

And all those words and phrases that were first heard in Shakespeare!  I do a Shakespeare introduction with my Year 8 class each year and they gasp at some of the words they use every day which came from the Bard.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. I would like to add, I don't subscribe to the conspiracy theories put out by folk who have nothing better to do. As far as I'm concerned, those plays and poems are not by Francis Bacon,  the Earl of Oxford, Christopher Marlowe or anyone else but the boy from Stratford!

Happy birthday, Will!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Happy Birthday, Charlotte Bronte!

Photo of Charlotte 1854.
(Wikimedia Commons)
Charlotte Bronte was born on this day in 1816, 198 years ago. She was one of a largeish family of children, but by the time her two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died of illness probably caused by time in an unpleasant boarding school, there were only four left - Charlotte, Emily, Anne and their brother Branwell. Charlotte didn't waste the experience: her alma mater turned up as Lowood School in Jane Eyre.

The Bronte kids, whose father was a parson, did a lot of writing together, poetry and fiction, all set in their own universes, Gondal and Angria. Unfortunately, they all ended up dying young, but their childhood writings are still in print, as are the published novels.

There was a novel by Antonia Forest, Peter's Room, in which a group of children think it might be a good idea to play around with the Bronte children's universe of Gondal. It was particularly interesting, I thought, in that there's a negative view of the girls' feelings about school, which meant they were interrupted in their world-building activities.

I haven't read a lot of their work, but there's no question that Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are special. I had to read Wuthering Heights for English Literature at high school. I remember one of the boys bemoaning the fact that all the girls were Heathcliff fans - and I can see his point. Both novels are Gothic-themed, but Heathcliff and Cathy are not at all sympathetic characters. I think I've said before on this blog that in my opinion they are unpleasant lovers who totally deserve each other. All the same, it's an amazing, powerful novel about what can happen when two selfish people are obsessed with each other. I loved it - but I don't love Heathcliff.

Jane Eyre is another matter. Jane is not a wimp, or the kind of Gothic heroine who faints at the drop of a hat or screams a lot. She isn't physically attractive either. She is a former abused child who decides to make the best of things and create a life for herself. The Reeds don't succeed in cowering her; if anything, she scares them!  She loves Rochester, but won't be his mistress or his bigamous wife. It's rather a shame that it has to end with her going back only when he's helpless, but the author does allow him to get back his sight.

Rochester is a much nicer man than Heathcliff. He was duped, let's face it, by a family wanting to marry off their daughter quickly before he noticed there was something not quite right about her. Despite all that, he looks after Bertha. He says he could have sent her to an institution, but didn't want her to be mistreated, as tended to happen in mental hospitals in those days. Even when she's set the house on fire and he could just let her jump, he tries to save her - that's how he goes blind in the first place.

Adele, the little girl, is almost certainly not his child, just the daughter of a former mistress. All the same, he took on the responsibility of caring for the child when her mother dumped her.

So, when he finally falls in love with a woman worth loving, he does the wrong thing in hopes of having a little happiness. Not good, but you can understand it. You can also understand Jane's departure when she finds out.

In any case, these are characters I could care about. And I do.

Happy birthday, Charlotte!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

I'm Re-reading... The Potter's Field by Ellis Peters

I haven't read this book in some time, though the Brother Cadfael books are among my favourites and I had read and re-read them. Last night I stayed with my mother and on an impulse picked it up from the pile by her bed. (She's reading library books and has read this one anyway).

It's really this week's random read. And I'm pleased to say I have forgotten whodunnit.                   

It has proven to be easy to get back into this world. For those unfamiliar with this series, ie too young or have been hiding under a rock, it's set in earlyish/mid-twelfth century, in the town of Shrewsbury, on the border of England and Wales. Brother Cadfael is a monk in the Abbey of St Peter and St Paul, a herbalist who has strong forensic skills due to his powers of observation. His closest friend is Hugh Beringar the deputy sheriff - later Sheriff - of Shropshire, whose duties include crime investigation in his area. In other words, the amateur sleuth and his buddy the cop. ;-). Cadfael is not some naive man who's been in the abbey from his youth; he had been a soldier and Crusader who had thrown it all away to retire into a quiet life. This means he can work out motivations that help solve mysteries. And the author can bring in people from his past - a former girlfriend he had dumped to go on Crusade,for  example(she thinks he went into a monastery because of her and he doesn't enlighten her), even his son by a woman he met in the east.

I had read some of this author's historical novels, written under her real name, Edith Pargeter,before discovering Brother Cadfael, but she had also written contemporary crime fiction as Ellis Peters before. She combined her crime and historical fiction skills and behold! Mediaeval crime fiction! 

I love the series, which is gentle, though I'd wince at calling the novels cosies. They're not. They're historical fiction set in a violent era when King Stephen and Empress Maud were battling it out for the crown of England, and though the folk of Shrewsbury seem to mostly live in peace, they are still affected by the war going on around them - in fact, the first novel, One Corpse Too Many,  is set immediately after Stephen has besieged Shrewsbury and executed a large number of men he considers traitors. The crime is woven into the history. It goes over a number of years - this one is set in 1143, when Geoffrey De Mandeville was looting and burning in the Fen country.

The BBC TV series with Derek Jacobi was pretty faithful to the books, as far as a telemovie could be faithful to a novel and Derek Jacobi perfect for the   role. The author herself said she would always imagine him as Cadfael from then on.

There were 20 books in the series before Edith Pargeter's death. Reading the final one I knew that it was intended to be the last. She could have written more, nobody died, but it felt like the last. Loose ends were tied up and the story was a personal one, about Cadfael and his son. It was sad to now there would be no more, but as the author died not long after, it was probably just as well. No frustrating unfinished novels or cliffhangers. 

I may just go back and re-read the lot! 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Two Selkie Stories From Scotland by Kate Forsyth, Ill. by FionaMcDonald, Armidale, NSW, Christmas Press, 2014

This is the second book to be published by Christmas Press, an Australian small press run by a group of writers and artists. The purpose of it is to publish the kind of  illustrated children's books they would have loved to read as children - and now! 

The first book, Two Trickster Tales From Russia, by Sophie Masson, featured Russian folktales with appropriately Russian-style illustrations(though they also reminded me of the art of British fairytale artist Walter Crane). The language was not too difficult for young children to understand, both those who could read independently and those to whom parents might read.

This new book is the same in that respect. I would have loved to read this when I was in Grade 2 or 3. (Admittedly, by the next year I was reading Robert Graves, but that was nerdy me.;-D) 

The two stories are "The Selkie Bride" - a story I have read before - and "In The Kingdom Of The Seals", which I haven't, although the theme of shooting at seals and hitting a Selkie is not unfamiliar. I've come across a much scarier version elsewhere. This one has a positive ending.

If you've been following Australian spec fic in the last year or two, you may have heard of Margo Lanagan's wonderful Selkie-themed Sea Hearts,  known as The Brides Of Rollrock Island outside Australia. It won about a million prizes and got on to the Stella list for women's fiction. 

Selkies are a part of Celtic folklore. The Selkie is a seal that can drop its skin and appear as a human for a while. If you steal the skin and hide it, the poor thing can't get home to the sea. The standard folktale is this: a fisherman or farmer sees a bunch of beautiful young women dancing on the shore. He startles them and they   run off back to the water, grabbing their skins and turning into seals. One poor girl isn't quite fast enough; the young man snatches her sealskin and demands she marries him.  She hasn't much choice. He hides the skin from her. She becomes a good wife and mother, but is always sad. One day, the  husband is out and one of her children finds the skin, either by accident or to make her happy. The woman grabs the skin, kisses the children goodbye - or sometimes doesn't bother - and returns to the sea. There's never a happy ending to these stories; even if the Selkie does go home, she loses her children and they lose her. 

In this book, the man who steals a bride from the sea is a laird, who tries to make his reluctant bride happy with nice clothes and food. Of course, he doesn't, and the story is pretty much the usual one.In the  second tale, "In The Kingdom Of The Seals", a man who makes his living killing seals and selling their pelts finds himself under the sea, facing the results of his actions, with a badly wounded Selkie that can't be healed except by him. But he's not a villain, just a man who has a wife and children to support, and the seals are a lot more forgiving than you'd expect. 

It's very appropriate to have these stories retold by a writer well known for her YA and adult fiction with folktale themes. She doesn't disappoint in this one.

The art is gorgeous and lavish, perfect for the kind of stories it's illustrating.

Another triumph for a wonderful new Australian small press.

The book will be available at all good bookshops in Australia from May 1. If you live outside Australia and would like a copy, you should be able to buy online. Just check out the web site: 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Dead Dog In The Still Of The Night by Archimede Fusillo. Melbourne:Ford Street Publishing, 2014

Life is tough for Primo, and about to get even tougher. Crashing his father's prized red Bambino Fiat 500 is just the first in a series of ill-fated events - events which are inexplicably intertwined with a dead dog in the still of the night... 

Year 12 boy Primo is in trouble. He needs money to pay for the repair of the damaged car he shouldn't have been driving, and getting hold of it means doing something truly stupid that he wouldn't normally dream of doing. In its turn, that leads to further problems. Those he cares about could be hurt. 

Then there's his father, who once had a workshop, now gathering dust as he spends his time in a home, wandering in the past and mostly not recognising the family members who visit him. He had let down his family with his womanising and now Primo must overcome his anger and resentment at the old man before there can be any healing.

This is a novel about growing up. Primo's journey to self understanding begins with understanding the people in his life, even being able to feel empathy for the old man who left his home in Italy with a dream that never quite worked out, to understand his mother's actions better - and then to take responsibility for his own actions.

Luckily for him, he has a kind and decent friend, Tone, willing to help even when Primo stuffs up, and a girlfriend, Maddie, who may not feel they're an item any more, but is willing to listen - and to discuss. 

There are some touches of humour scattered through the book; I particularly liked the assumption many people in the novel have that Tone's Dad, a pizzeria owner, is some sort of Mafioso thug, a perception the father is happy to encourage because it's convenient(he served time in jail, but for a white collar crime).

You'll have to decide if the ending is happy or not. It's certainly positive in the hero's growth.

Melbourne flavours this novel, especially Fitzroy, gentrified on one end and poor and crumbling on the other. The author's Italian background comes through clearly, as does his voice, the latter almost literally - having heard Archie Fusillo speak, I could almost hear his voice reading the novel aloud! This might make an interesting audiobook if Ford Street ever has the resources to arrange it, but only if the author reads it himself.

There aren't enough good books for boys being published and it is always a pleasure to find one. 

I'd recommend this for boys from about fourteen up.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Vale Sue Townsend!

I've just heard that Sue Townsend, the author of The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4, has died at the age of only 68 years. It makes you realise that you need to follow your dreams now, because you can't assume you're going to live to some fabulous old age, then die while skydiving!

I remember when that book was a huge international bestseller, with a TV series and a play to keep it so. It must still be selling, because there have been several sequels, but alas, the class set we have on our shelves has been sitting there gathering dust for a long time.

When the book was published, I was an adult and read it as an adult, so I got the in-jokes, but I remember someone commenting that for boys about the age of the hero, it would be embarrassing. Boys, in fact, about the age of those in my Year 8 class.

And it might. Poor Adrian, that naive boy who is going through all the things boys of his age go through plus worrying about, and being embarrassed by, his parents, being dragged along for the ride by his sort-of-girlfriend Pandora, the daughter of middle class lefties(starting with the protest about sock colours at school)... He is a complete dork, but you can't help feeling for him.

At the same time, it's about life in Britain in the Thatcher years; in fact, the author also wrote a diary of "Margaret Hilda Roberts" showing she didn't have much sympathy for that lady.

I never got around to reading the rest of the series and I probably won't now; I suspect it's more of the same, only with an older hero.

But there's no question it's a classic and I'm sad that the author is gone.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Star by Felicity Marshall. Melbourne: Ford Street Publishing, 2010

Marion is a wooden Columbine doll. She and her friends Harley the Harlequin doll and the dog Polka live together by the sea. They're happy, but Marion wants more. She dreams of adventure. One day, a "smiling man" offers her stardom. She learns to sing and dance. She has a makeover, new clothes and a nose job. She has fan mail by the thousands, and someone to answer it.

And one day, she's on the scrap heap - literally. Fortunately, she still has friends...

A nice discussion of the emptiness of fame and fortune. And kids are those most likely to go for the latest, the youngest, the prettiest star. Definitely something to discuss in class as a writing prompt.

The art is beautiful and makes its point in case the reader didn't get it.

This has been lying on my TBR pile for some time, but is still worth buying. I believe it received a well-deserved Notable in the 2011 CBCA awards.

Recent Downloads - from Wodehouse to Russon!

I really need to stop doing this. But I read a blog post that mentions a book that sounds interesting and I just have to look and see if it's available in iBooks.

I have downloaded some PG Wodehouse short story collections. They're public domain and I love  Wodehouse, so funny!

Tank Boys by Stephen Dando-Collins is somewhere in my review pile, but couldn't unearth it, after tidying my books away, so I bought the ebook. It's a WWI tale of a famous tank battle, seen from both Ausse and German viewpoints.

Penni Russon's Undine - although set by the sea, in Tasmania, it's not really about the sea. The title is the heroine's name and her father is Prospero Marine, and there are quotes from The Tempest, but her powers don't seem to be connected with water.

Keith Stevenson's first issue of Dimension 6 - stories by Richard Harland, Charlotte Nash and Jason Nahrung. No wonder I didn't get a story in. The authors were paid, but  it's free for download on the Coeur De Lion Press website, so go grab it while you can.

David Malouf's Johnno(hey, it was his birthday! And it's pretty much historical fiction, so what the heck!)

Consider The Fork by Bee Wilson, a history of cooking implements and how we eat. Good fun!

A book about Eleanor Butler, Edward IV's secret wife before he committed bigamy with Elizabeth Woodville. It's Eleanor: The Secret Queen by John Ashdowne Hill.

A Tom Swift book.

Oh, lots more! I do love my ereader!